Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded September 3, 1954
Track Time 2:15
Written by Jerry Herman
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Russell “Big Chief” Moore, trombone; Eddie Shu, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Originally released on Mercury 72338
Currently available on CD: On a difficult-to-find German box, The Best of Louis Armstrong, which fortunately is available on Itunes
Available on Itunes? Yes
When Louis Armstrong entered a New York recording studio on December 3, 1963 to record two Broadway showtunes, no one was expecting much. Armstrong was reportedly dejected by the quality of material, though his good friend Jack Bradley predicted that one of the songs, “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” could perhaps get some airplay with the right promotion. Of course, the other song recorded that day was “Hello, Dolly” and just a few months after its release, it was the number one record in the country, knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts at the height of their popularity.
The success of “Hello, Dolly” did wonders for Louis Armstrong’s performing career. He hadn’t stopped selling out shows for a minute but he had disappeared from the limelight a bit in 1962 and 1963, recording no albums whatsoever and making rare appearances on United States television. “Dolly” changed all of that. For the rest of his life, Armstrong was guaranteed bigger crowds than ever, all of them filled with new fans attending his shows for the first time. He was ubiquitous in films and on television and was the recipient of numerous profiles in magazines and newspapers. Only one aspect of his career suffered a bit: his studio recordings became more erratic than ever, though it was no fault of his own. Producers and A&R men saw the formula for the “Dolly” hit and decided to ape it for al lit was worth, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle once again. It never happened and because of that, Armstrong’s post-“Dolly” records are some of his least known (“What a Wonderful World” notwithstanding).
However, in my opinion, the best of the post-“Dolly” records was the very first one. After completing the album Hello, Dolly, and touring nonstop for a few months, Armstrong returned to the studio on September 3, 1964. Waiting for him was yet another song from the score of Hello, Dolly, “So Long Dearie,” another banjo player in the form of Everett Barksdale and another chance to sing the word “Louis.” It was Armstrong’s first session for Mercury Records, where Quincy Jones was an A&R man who worked a number of Armstrong sessions during this period. It’s not known if he was behind “So Long Dearie,” but whoever was sure wasn’t embarrassed about going to the “Dolly” well for a second time in such a blatant way.
Fortunately, “So Long Dearie” proved to be a highlight of Armstrong’s 1960s recording sessions, even though he doesn’t play one note of trumpet. What makes the record work is Armstrong’s enthusiastic singing, the intense swinging of the All Stars and a different song structure that allows for some exciting shifts in momentum. If you haven’t heard “So Long Dearie,” you’re in luck as someone in the YouTube world recently made a slideshow of the images of the original 45 record while the original recording plays in the background. It’s then followed by rare footage of Armstrong performing the tune live in the Prague. I’ll discuss both renditions in this entry but if you’d like to enjoy it before I go on, here ‘tis, courtesy of “Effacers”:
Right from the start it’s like listening to “Hello, Dolly – The Sequel” as Barksdale’s banjo plays a prominent role in the introduction. How interesting it is that Armstrong hadn’t played with a banjo since about 1928, but after “Dolly,” the majority of his succeeding records all featured that instrument? Hell, even when Armstrong recreated the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, he used George Barnes on electric guitar rather than bring back a banjo. Regardless, used in tandem with Billy Kyle’s piano and the swinging rhythm team of Arvell Shaw and Danny Barcelona, it makes for an exciting introduction. Pops begins singing the first strain with arranged support from Russell “Big Chief” Moore and clarinetist Eddie Shu, who joined the band only two months prior to the session. Apparently, the session reels exist for this session and according to Jos Willems’s All of Me, the seventh take was used as the master. Thus, the band had some time to get used to the different structure and come up with some neat little arranging touches, most likely courtesy of Billy Kyle. Pops sounds effervescent, obviously digging the pretty chord changes that enter a minor territory on more than one occasion. And how could Pops resist a lyric that already had the phrase “you dog” built in?
For the first 32-bar strain, Shaw plays two-beat on the bass, which effectively sets up the swinging transition to the next strain. I personally this love the minor-keyed episode and a lot it has to do with the rhythm section’s will to swing. Shaw begins intensely alternating the root and the fifth, while Kyle hits some perfectly placed chords, echoing the “choo choo” Pops is singing about in the foreground. Barcelona steadily whacks the rim of his snare while Barksdale, a great guitarist, provides some nice, chunky rhythms. After 16 bars of dark swinging, the tune switches from major to minor and the band responds again, Shaw doubling up the notes of his bass line. And of course, though I’m spending my time extolling the virtues of the rhythm section, I don’t want to neglect Pops, who sounds like he’s having the time of his life, inserting the word “chick” and laughing heartily before the written-in two-bar interlude by Moore and Shu.
At this point, the structure of the song reverts back to the original chord changes, but now Armstrong leaves two-bar gaps for trombone and clarinet to fill in. Armstrong slyly says so long to “Dolly” this time around, but perhaps the climax of the record comes at the final bridge, which again goes back to a minor-key and allows Moore and Shu to ditch the arrangement and improvise polyphonically from the heart. As Pops builds up a nice head of steam himself, he sings in the final A section, “Wave your hand and whisper, So Long, Louis.” Clearly, referring to himself as “Louis” was a big part of “Dolly’s” charm so it couldn’t hurt to try it again. Overall, for a song with no Armstrong trumpet, “So Long Dearie” really is a home run for me.
Unfortunately for Mercury, it didn’t become the next “Dolly,” but it did make it up to #56 on the pop charts. Armstrong featured it for a while, including a performance on an Australian TV show from late 1964 that I have never seen. In March 1965, Armstrong made a historical tour of Prague and East Berlin, finally cracking a bit of the Iron Curtain. In Prague, Armstrong was filmed at what appears to be an informal rehearsal session. I don’t know when it was filmed or who was in the audience, but Pops looks relaxed without his tuxedo. Meanwhile, the session is an important one because Eddie Shu plays the tenor saxophone throughout, making it perhaps the only time a tenor appeared in the standard All Stars front line. Shu was a talented multi-instrumentalist (he also played trumpet) whose main horn was the tenor so it’s no wonder that he sounds so comfortable here. During the same session, Armstrong blows a tremendous version of “Back O’Town Blues,” so his chops were in sparkling form, but again, there’s no playing on “So Long Dearie.” If you scroll back up to that YouTube video, the second half of it contains the complete Prague performance of “Dearie.”
As can be heard from the start, the tempo in Prague is fairly slower than the studio record. It takes a second to get used to after hearing the hard-charging swing of the Mercury version, but nonetheless, it builds up a pretty nice head of steam. The banjo is gone, so one can really focus on Arvell Shaw’s bass lines, once again offering two-beat in the beginning. Shu and new All Stars trombonist Tyree Glenn perform the same arranged background riffs as heard on the record. Armstrong really sells the song with his facial expressions and hand movements, waving “so long” at the appropriate time. If you listen carefully, it sounds like Shaw yells “Go Pops,” before the piece kicks into swing time for that wonderful minor strain. Again, Kyle really digs in and Shu sounds great behind Pops, playing some faintly Jewish-sounding melodies (Shu, real name Shulman, he used to do this on “When The Saints Go Marching In,” as well).
After the verse interlude, things settle into a comfortably swinging groove and Shu and Glenn get downright raucous in their instrumental responses to the vocal. However, for me, the highlight comes in the bridge of the last chorus, which captures Armstrong at his most relaxed. “I’ll be all dressed up,” he sings before adding a perfect little aside: “Sharp as a tack.” Then, with absolutely perfect phrasing, he sings the line “Singing that song” all on one note. I love everything about that moment: the swing of it, the little pause, the funny aside. He swings out ‘til the ending, though he sings “So Long Dearie,” instead of “So Long Louis,” as he did on the record. He catches himself and immediately sings, “Louis should have said ‘so long’ so long ago.” Shu continues his tasty playing until the very end as Pops swings to a happy finish.
For me, it’s a toss-up as to which version of “Dearie” I prefer, but I can officially say that I wish I had some more to choose from! “Dearie” seems to have been phased out, though Armstrong did perform it on the Dean Martin Show at the end of 1965. I went out of my way to obtain one of those Dean Martin best-of DVDs because it mentioned Armstrong’s appearance, hoping to catch him doing “Dearie,” but alas, it only had a medley duet with Dean (hey, NBC, let’s get some full seasons of the Martin show!). Though it might have disappeared from the All Stars’s stage show, Pops did like to keep it for rehearsals and informal sessions like the one from Prague. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi joined the band in June 1967 and he was one of the lucky ones to have an actual rehearsal before his first gig with Pops. Here’s what he told me about it:
“I just did the best I could and by the end of the evening, Pops was smiling. And I remember ‘So Long Dearie.’ I said, ‘Well, I can get through the chorus but I don’t know the verse too well.’ So he blows his horn into my fucking face and plays it for me! It was wonderful! I was such a fan, I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I got to listen and try to learn and as it turns out, we never did ever play it, but he played it for me as to how it went which is marvelous.”
So Pops kept “Dearie” around and even blew trumpet on it when he needed something different to warm up with or to rehearse, but really, it remains a lesser known “Dolly” knock-off from Pops’s erratic Mercury sessions. Hopefully this entry and the above YouTube video (courtesy of Effacers via Skitdat) will give you more appreciation for this swinging little tune.